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Somali language

Af-Soomaali   /   اف سومالى
Native to Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Yemen, Kenya
Region Horn of Africa
Native speakers
17 million  (2006–2009)[1]
Somali alphabet (Latin script)
Wadaad writing (Arabic script)
Official status
Official language in
Recognised minority
language in
Regulated by Regional Somali Language Academy
Language codes
ISO 639-1 so
ISO 639-2 som
ISO 639-3 som
Glottolog soma1255[2]
Primary Somali speech area

Somali [3] (Af-Soomaali  pronounced ) is an Afro-Asiatic language, belonging to that family's Cushitic branch. It is spoken as a mother tongue by ethnic Somalis in Greater Somalia and the Somali diaspora. Somali is an official language of the Federal Republic of Somalia, a national language in Djibouti, and a working language in the Somali region of Ethiopia. It is used as an adoptive language by a few neighboring ethnic minority groups and individuals.


  • Classification 1
  • Geographic distribution 2
    • Official status 2.1
  • Varieties 3
  • Phonology 4
  • Grammar 5
    • Morphology 5.1
    • Syntax 5.2
  • Vocabulary 6
  • Writing system 7
  • Sample text 8
    • Numbers 8.1
    • Days of the week 8.2
  • See also 9
  • Notes 10
  • References 11
  • Further reading 12
  • External links 13


Somali is classified within the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family, specifically as Lowland East Cushitic along with Afar and Saho.[4] Somali is the best-documented Cushitic language,[5] with academic studies of it dating back to the late 19th century.[6]

Geographic distribution

The Somali language is spoken by ethnic Somalis in Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Yemen and Kenya, and by the Somali diaspora. It is also spoken as an adoptive language by a few ethnic minority groups and individuals in these areas.

Somali is the second most widely spoken Cushitic language after Oromo.[7]

As of 2006, there were approximately 16.6 million speakers of Somali, of which about 8.3 million resided in Somalia.[8] The language is spoken by an estimated 95% of the country's inhabitants,[6] and also by a majority of the population in Djibouti.[9]

Following the start of the civil war in Somalia in the early 1990s, the Somali-speaking diaspora increased in size, with newer Somali speech communities forming in parts of the Middle East, North America and Europe.[8]

Official status

A news broadcast in Somali on Horn Cable Television.

Constitutionally, Somali and Arabic are the two official languages of Somalia.[10] Somali has been an official national language since January 1973, when the Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC) declared it the Somali Democratic Republic's primary language of administration and education. Somali was thereafter established as the main language of academic instruction in forms 1 through 4, following preparatory work by the government-appointed Somali Language Committee. It later expanded to include all 12 forms in 1979. In 1972, the SRC adopted a Latin orthography as the official national alphabet over several other writing scripts that were then in use. Concurrently, the Italian-language daily newspaper Stella d'Ottobre was nationalized, renamed to Xiddigta Oktoobar ("The October Star"), and began publishing in Somali.[11] The state-run Radio Mogadishu has also broadcast in Somali since 1943.[12] Additionally, the regional public networks Puntland TV and Radio and Somaliland National TV, as well as Eastern Television Network and Horn Cable Television, among other private broadcasters, air programs in Somali.[13]

Somali is recognized as an official working language in the Somali Region of Ethiopia.[14] Although it is not an official language of Djibouti, it constitutes a major national language there. Somali is used in television and radio broadcasts,[15][6] with the government-operated Radio Djibouti transmitting programs in the language from 1943 onwards.[12]

The Somali language is regulated by the Regional Somali Language Academy, an intergovernmental institution established in June 2013 in Djibouti City by the governments of Djibouti, Somalia and Ethiopia. It is officially mandated with preserving the Somali language.[16]

As of 2013, Somali is also one of the featured languages available on Google Translate.[17]


Somali linguistic varieties are divided into three main groups: Northern, Benadir and Maay. Northern Somali (or Northern-Central Somali) forms the basis for Standard Somali,[18] particularly the Mudug dialect of the northern Darod. It is today spoken in an area stretching from northern Somalia to parts of the eastern and southwestern sections of the country.[19] This widespread modern distribution is a result of a long series of southward population movements over the past ten centuries from the Gulf of Aden littoral.[20] Northern Somali has frequently been used by famous Somali poets as well as the political elite, and thus has the most prestige out of the Somali dialects.[21]

Speech sample in Standard Somali.

Benadir (also known as Coastal Somali) is spoken on the central Indian Ocean seaboard, including Mogadishu. It forms a relatively large group. The dialect is fairly mutually intelligible with Northern Somali.[22]

Maay is principally spoken by the Digil and Mirifle (Rahanweyn or Sab) clans in the southern regions of Somalia.[18] Its speech area extends from the southwestern border with Ethiopia to a region close to the coastal strip between Mogadishu and Kismayo, including the city of Baidoa.[22] Maay is not mutually comprehensible with Northern Somali or Benadir, and it differs considerably in sentence structure and phonology.[23] It is also not generally used in education or media. However, Maay speakers often use Standard Somali as a lingua franca,[22] which is learned via mass communications, internal migration and urbanization.[23]

Maay is closely related with the Jiido, Dabarre, Garre and Tunni languages that are also spoken by smaller Rahanweyn communities. Collectively, these languages present similarities with Oromo that are not found in mainstream Somali. Chief among these is the lack of pharyngeal sounds in the Rahanweyn/Digil and Mirifle languages, features which by contrast typify Somali. The retroflex /ɖ/ is also replaced by /r/ in some positions. Although in the past frequently classified as dialects of Somali, more recent research by the linguist Mohamed Diriye Abdullahi has shown that these varieties, including Maay, constitute separate Cushitic languages. They may thus represent traces of an Oromo substratum in the southern Rahanweyn confederacy.[24]


Somali has 22 consonant phonemes.[25]

Somali consonant phonemes[26][27]
  Bilabial Labio
Dental Alveolar Palato
Retroflex Palatal Velar Uvular Pharyn
Nasal m         n                            
Plosive   b               ɖ     k ɡ q       ʔ  
Fricative     f       s   ʃ           x~χ       ħ ʕ h  
Trill             r                            
Approximant             l         j w            

The consonants /b d̪ q/ often weaken to /β ð ɣ/ intervocalically.[28] The retroflex plosive /ɖ/ may have an implosive quality for some speakers, and intervocalically it can be realized as the flap /ɽ/.[28] Some speakers produce /ħ/ with epiglottal trilling.[29] /q/ is often epiglottalized.[30]

The language has five basic vowel sounds. Each possesses a front and back variation as well as long or short versions. This gives a distinct 20 pure vowel sounds. It also exhibits three tones: high, low and falling.

The syllable structure of Somali is (C)V(C). Root morphemes usually have a mono- or di-syllabic structure.

Pitch is phonemic in Somali, but it is debated whether Somali is a pitch accent or tonal language.[31] Abdullahi (2000), the most recent work exclusively on the subject, proposes that Somali is not a tonal language.[32]


Somali pronouns
  Subject pronouns Object pronouns
Person Emphatic Short Emphatic Short
1. Sing. anigu aan aniga i(i)
2. Sing. adigu aad adiga ku(u)
3. Sing. m. isagu uu isaga (u)
3. Sing. f. iyadu ay iyada (u)
1. Pl. (inclusive) innagu aynu innaga ina/inoo
1. Pl. (exclusive) annagu aannu annaga na/noo
2. Pl. idinku aad idinka idin/idiin
3. Pl. iyagu ay iyaga (u)


Somali is an agglutinative language, and also shows properties of inflection. Affixes mark many grammatical meanings, including aspect, tense and case.[33]

Somali evinces an old prefixal verbal inflection restricted to four common verbs, with all other verbs undergoing inflection by more obvious suffixation. This general pattern is similar to the stem alternation that typifies Cairene Arabic.[34]

Changes in pitch are used for grammatical rather than lexical purposes.[35] This includes distinctions of gender, number and case.[35] In some cases, these distinctions are marked by tone alone (e.g. ĺnan, "boy"; inán, "girl").[36]

Somali has two sets of pronouns: independent (substantive, emphatic) pronouns and clitic (verbal) pronouns.[37] The independent pronouns behave grammatically as nouns, and normally occur with the suffixed article -ka/-ta (e.g. adiga, "you").[37] This article may be omitted after a conjunction or focus word. For example, adna meaning "and you..." (from adi-na).[37] Clitic pronouns are attached to the verb and do not take nominal morphology.[38] Somali marks clusivity in the first person plural pronouns; this is also found in a number of other East Cushitic languages, such as Rendille and Dhaasanac.[39]

As in various other Afro-Asiatic languages, Somali has gender polarity whereby plural nouns usually take the opposite gender agreement of their singular forms.[40][41] For example, the plural of the masculine noun dibi ("bull") is formed by converting it into feminine dibi.[40] Somali is unusual among the world's languages in that the object is unmarked for case while the subject is marked, though this feature is found in other Cushitic languages such as Oromo.[42]


Somali is a subject–object–verb (SOV) language.[8] It is largely head final, with postpositions and with obliques preceding verbs.[43] These are common features of the Cushitic and Semitic Afro-Asiatic languages spoken in the Horn region (e.g. Amharic).[44] However, Somali noun phrases are head-initial, whereby the noun precedes its modifying adjective.[45][43] This pattern of general head-finality with head-initial noun phrases is also found in other Cushitic languages (e.g. Oromo), but not generally in Ethiopian Semitic languages.[43][46]

Somali uses three focus markers: baa, ayaa and waxa(a), which generally mark new information or contrastive emphasis.[47] Baa and ayaa require the focused element to occur preverbally, while waxa(a) may be used following the verb.[48]


Somali language books on display.

Somali loanwords can be divided into those derived from other Afro-Asiatic languages (mainly Arabic), and those of Indo-European extraction.[49]

Somali's main lexical borrowings come from Arabic, and are estimated to constitute about 20% of the language's vocabulary.[50] This is a legacy of the Somali people's extensive social, cultural, commercial and religious links and contacts with nearby populations in the Arabian peninsula. Arabic loanwords are most commonly used in religious, administrative and education-related speech (e.g. aamiin for "faith in God"), though they are also present in other areas (e.g. kubbad-da, "ball").[49] Soravia (1994) noted a total of 1,436 Arabic loanwords in Agostini a.o. 1985,[51] a prominent 40,000-entry Somali dictionary.[21] Most of the terms consisted of commonly used nouns. These lexical borrowings may have been more extensive in the past since a few words that Zaborski (1967:122) observed in the older literature were absent in Agostini's later work.[51] In addition, the majority of personal names are derived from Arabic.[52]

The Somali language also contains a few Indo-European loanwords that were retained from the colonial period.[11] Most of these lexical borrowings come from English and are used to describe new objects or concepts (e.g. televishen-ka, "television"; raadia-ha, "radio").[53] There are as well some Romance loans, such as garawati for "tie" (from the Italian cravatta), and bilyeti-ga for "ticket" (from the French billet).[53]

Additionally, Somali contains lexical terms from Persian, Urdu and Hindi that were acquired through historical trade with communities in the Near East and South Asia (e.g. khiyaar for cucumber, from the Persian khiyar).[53] Some of these words were also borrowed indirectly via Arabic.[53][54]

As part of a broader governmental effort to ensure and safeguard the primacy of the Somali language, the past few decades has seen a push in Somalia toward replacement of loanwords in general with their Somali equivalents or neologisms. To this end, the Supreme Revolutionary Council during its tenure officially prohibited the borrowing and use of English and Italian terms.[11]

Writing system

The Osmanya writing script for Somali.

Archaeological excavations and research in Somalia uncovered ancient inscriptions in a distinct writing script.[55] In an 1878 report to the Royal Geographical Society of Great Britain, scientist J.M. Hildebrandt noted upon visiting the area that "we know from ancient authors that these districts, at present so desert, were formerly populous and civilised[...] I also discovered ancient ruins and rock-inscriptions both in pictures and characters[...] These have hitherto not been deciphered."[56] According to Somalia's Ministry of Information and National Guidance, this script represents the earliest written attestation of Somali.[55]

Since then a number of writing systems have been used for transcribing the language. Of these, the Somali Latin alphabet, officially adopted in 1972, is the most widely used.[57] The script was developed by the Somali linguist Shire Jama Ahmed specifically for the Somali language, and uses all letters of the English Latin alphabet except p, v and z. There are no diacritics or other special characters except the use of the apostrophe for the glottal stop, which does not occur word-initially. There are three consonant digraphs: DH, KH and SH. Tone is not marked, and front and back vowels are not distinguished.

Besides Ahmed's Latin script, other orthographies that have been used for centuries for writing Somali include the long-established Arabic script and Wadaad's writing.[58] Indigenous writing systems developed in the twentieth century include the Osmanya, Borama and Kaddare scripts, which were invented by Osman Yusuf Kenadid, Sheikh Abdurahman Sheikh Nuur and Hussein Sheikh Ahmed Kaddare, respectively.[59]

Sample text


English Somali
One hundred boqol
One thousand kun
One million malyuun
One billion bilyan

Days of the week

English Somali
Sunday axad
Monday isniin
Tuesday talaado
Wednesday arbaca
Thursday khamiis
Friday jimca
Saturday sabti

See also


  1. ^ Somali at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Somali". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ "Somali". Collins Dictionary.  Retrieved on 21 September 2013
  4. ^ Lewis (1998:11)
  5. ^ Lecarme & Maury (1987:22)
  6. ^ a b c Dubnov (2003:9)
  7. ^ Saeed (1999:3)
  8. ^ a b c "Somali".  
  9. ^ Lecarme & Maury (1987:22)
  10. ^ "The Federal Republic of Somalia - Provisional Constitution". Retrieved 13 March 2013. 
  11. ^ a b c Ammon & Hellinger (1992:128–131)
  12. ^ a b Dubnov (2003:10)
  13. ^ "Somali Media Mapping Report". Somali Media Mapping. Retrieved 31 August 2014. 
  14. ^ Kizitus Mpoche, Tennu Mbuh, eds. (2006). Language, literature, and identity. Cuvillier. pp. 163–164.  
  15. ^ "Ethnologue - Djibouti - Languages". Ethnologue. Retrieved 25 April 2013. 
  16. ^ "Regional Somali Language Academy Launched in Djibouti". COMESA Regional Investment Agency. Retrieved 28 February 2014. 
  17. ^ "Google Translate - now in 80 languages". Google Translate. 10 December 2013. Retrieved 30 December 2013. 
  18. ^ a b Dalby (1998:571)
  19. ^ Mundus, Volumes 23-24. Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft. 1987. p. 205. 
  20. ^ Andrzejewski & Lewis (1964:6)
  21. ^ a b Saeed (1999:5)
  22. ^ a b c Saeed (1999:4)
  23. ^ a b "Maay - A language of Somalia". Ethnologue. Retrieved 7 May 2013. 
  24. ^ Abdullahi (2001:9)
  25. ^ Saeed (1999:7)
  26. ^ Saeed (1999:7-10)
  27. ^ Gabbard (2010:6)
  28. ^ a b Saeed (1999:8)
  29. ^ Gabbard (2010:14)
  30. ^ Edmondson, Esling & Harris (n.d.:5)
  31. ^ Keith Brown, Sarah Ogilvie (2010). Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World. Elsevier. p. 987.  
  32. ^ Abdullahi, Mohammed Diriye. "Is Somali a Tone Language?". Université de Montréal. Retrieved 8 May 2013. 
  33. ^ Dubnov (2003:11)
  34. ^ Kraska, Iwona (2007). Analogy: the relation between lexicon and grammar. Lincom Europa. p. 140.  
  35. ^ a b Saeed (1999:21)
  36. ^ Saeed (1999:19)
  37. ^ a b c Saeed (1999:68)
  38. ^ Saeed (1999:72)
  39. ^ Weninger (2011:43)
  40. ^ a b Tosco, Mauro; Department of Anthropology; Indiana University (2000). "Is There an "Ethiopian Language Area"?". Anthropological Linguistics 42 (3): 349. Retrieved 8 May 2013. 
  41. ^ Zwicky & Pullum (1983:389)
  42. ^ John I. Saeed (1984). The Syntax of Focus & Topic in Somali. H. Buske. p. 66.  
  43. ^ a b c Heine & Nurse (2000:253)
  44. ^ Klaus Wedekind, Charlotte Wedekind, Abuzeinab Musa (2007). A learner's grammar of Beja (East Sudan): grammar, texts and vocabulary (Beja-English and English-Beja). Rüdiger Köppe Verlag. p. 10.  
  45. ^ Saeed (1999:164, 173)
  46. ^ Fisiak (1997:53)
  47. ^ Saeed (1999:117)
  48. ^ Saeed (1999:240)
  49. ^ a b Dubnov (2003:71)
  50. ^ Laitin (1977:25)
  51. ^ a b Versteegh (2008:273)
  52. ^ Saeed (1999:2)
  53. ^ a b c d Dubnov (2003:73)
  54. ^ Sheik-ʻAbdi (1993:45)
  55. ^ a b Ministry of Information and National Guidance, Somalia, The writing of the Somali language, (Ministry of Information and National Guidance: 1974), p.5
  56. ^ Royal Geographical Society (Great Britain), Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Volume 22, "Mr. J. M. Hildebrandt on his Travels in East Africa", (Edward Stanford: 1878), p. 447.
  57. ^ Economist Intelligence Unit (Great Britain), Middle East annual review, (1975), p.229
  58. ^ "Omniglot - Somali writing scripts". Omniglot. Retrieved 8 May 2013. 
  59. ^ Laitin (1977:86-87)


  • Abdullahi, Mohamed Diriye (2001). Culture and Customs of Somalia. Greenwood.  
  • Ammon, Ulrich; Hellinger, Marlis (1992). Status Change of Languages. Walter de Gruyter. 
  • Andrzejewski, B.; Lewis, I. (1964). Somali poetry: an introduction. Clarendon Press. 
  • Dalby, Andrew (1998). Dictionary of languages: the definitive reference to more than 400 languages. Columbia University Press. 
  • Dubnov, Helena (2003). A Grammatical Sketch of Somali. Koln: Rudiger Koppe Verlag. 
  • Edmondson, Jerold; Esling, John; Harris, Jimmy (n.d.), Supraglottal cavity shape, linguistic register, and other phonetic features of Somali 
  • Fisiak, Jacek (1997). Linguistic reconstruction and typology. Walter de Gruyter.  
  • Gabbard, Kevin (2010), A Phonological Analysis of Somali and the Guttural Consonants 
  • Heine, Bernd; Nurse, Derek (2000). African Languages: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press.  
  • Laitin, David (1977). Politics, Language, and Thought: The Somali Experience. University Of Chicago Press. 
  • Lecarme, Jacqueline; Maury, Carole (1987). "A software tool for research in linguistics and lexicography: Application to Somali". Computers and Translation (Paradigm Press) 2. 
  • Lewis, I. (1998). Peoples of the Horn of Africa: Somali, Afar and Saho. Red Sea Press. 
  • Saeed, John (1999). Somali. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.  
  • Sheik-ʻAbdi, ʻAbdi ʻAbdulqadir (1993). Divine madness: Moḥammed ʻAbdulle Ḥassan (1856-1920). Zed Books. 
  • Versteegh, Kees (2008). Encyclopedia of Arabic language and linguistics, Volume 4. Brill.  
  • Weninger, Stefan (2011). Semitic Languages: An International Handbook. Walter de Gruyter.  
  • Zwicky, Arnold; Pullum, Geoffrey (1983). "Phonology in Syntax: The Somali Optional Agreement Rule". Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 1 (3): 385–402.  

Further reading

  • Abdullahi, Mohamed Diriye (2000). Le Somali, dialectes et histoire. Ph.D. dissertation, Université de Montréal.
  • Armstrong, L.E. (1964). "The phonetic structure of Somali," Mitteilungen des Seminars für Orientalische Sprachen Berlin 37/3:116-161.
  • Bell, C.R.V. (1953). The Somali Language. London: Longmans, Green & Co.
  • Berchem, Jörg (1991). Referenzgrammatik des Somali. Köln: Omimee.
  • Cardona, G.R. (1981). "Profilo fonologico del somalo," Fonologia e lessico. Ed. G.R. Cardona & F. Agostini. Rome: Dipartimento per la Cooperazione allo Sviluppo; Comitato Tecnico Linguistico per l'Università Nazionale Somala, Ministero degli Affari Esteri. Volume 1, pages 3–26.
  • Dobnova, Elena Z. (1990). Sovremennyj somalijskij jazyk. Moskva: Nauka.
  • Puglielli, Annarita (1997). "Somali Phonology," Phonologies of Asia and Africa, Volume 1. Ed. Alan S. Kaye. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns. Pages 521-535.
  • Saeed, John Ibrahim (1987). Somali Reference Grammar. Springfield, VA: Dunwoody Press.

External links

  • Somali Language Page: Resources, links and information on the Somali language.
  • Hooyo.Web - Somali Grammar
  • Bibliographies on Somali language resources
  • Learn101 - Learn Somali
  • Digital Dialects - Somali language learning games
  • Enhancing the Quality of Google Somali Translations
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